(My insincerest apologies for the pun in the title.)
Talking about the show Ted Lasso makes me want to speak in clichés. Big-hearted and optimistic! Full of charm! Root for the underdog! Teamwork makes the dream work! It’s not about who wins or loses! Okay, that’s about enough of that. But the show really does gather all those kinds of overused sportsball tropes and imbues them with buckets of warmth and charm, which is then carefully balanced with just enough cynicism and snark to produce a funny, kind, entertaining, and endearing show.
After discovering that he’s a total philanderer, Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) divorces her husband Rupert (Anthony Head) and takes control of his beloved, but somewhat mediocre, AFC Richmond. As one of her first moves as boss she fires the current coach—after pointing out that she’s tired of hearing his casual misogyny and seeing his testicles peeking out from below his short shorts. So I’m already smitten with her. Then she hires Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis), an American who has absolutely zero, zip, zilch experience with soccer balls. Rebecca, with her perfectly coiffed blonde hair, well-tailored clothing, Michelle Obama arms, and don’t-fucking-test-me attitude, intimidates many of the people around her. Like, for example, Higgins (Jeremy Swift), who is constantly saying the wrong thing, scurrying to ensure he doesn’t contradict her, and whose eyes, magnified by his large glasses, only grow more owl-like with each of Rebecca’s derisive comments. Rebecca’s nefarious plan is to run the Richmond club, led by Ted Lasso and his absolute lack of any football knowledge, entirely into the ground as her final act of revenge toward her horrible ex-husband. But she’s wholly unprepared for Ted Lasso’s unrelenting optimism, determination, warmth, empathy, open honesty, and kindness, which will help to transform not only the football club, but all the people involved.
But how did a division II American college football coach end up trying to guide a team playing a game that he admits you could “fill two internets” with how much he doesn’t know about it? Well, it turns out that Coach Lasso’s marriage is on the rocks. His wife, among other things, finds him too optimistic (you really can see how living with a relentless silver lining-generator might be difficult). She has requested time and space to figure out what she wants, but in a kind way. So, in a move that Ted readily admits is extremely rash, he says goodbye to his wife and young son, grabs his assistant Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt), and heads to London to take the job.
Honestly? I got a little stuck on this part for a while. First of all, there’s a difference between giving your struggling spouse space and leaving her to parent your child alone while you’re an ocean away. I just can’t understand how she’ll have time to really process her feelings about their relationship if she’s also solo parenting a young kid who is living through the trauma and uncertainty of his parents separating. Also, I kept envisioning how this story would be different if Ted were a woman. Imagine if this was the story of Theodora Lasso whose marriage was crumbling. She’d likely bring the kid with her to England and there would be lots of plot lines about her racing around trying to find childcare or the kid interrupting things at inopportune moments. On the other hand, if Theodora dared to leave her child in America while she took off to work in London for months? Well, then she’d have to be cast as a more aggressive, probably less empathetic character. (Plus, there would likely be lots of “funny” calls from home about the father not knowing how to do something, and we’d feel sorry for him having to manage it all alone.) Whereas being far from his son is an opportunity to show Ted Lasso as a more vulnerable and touching character, I think it would likely mean the hypothetical Theodora was more unemotional and driven. I’m not saying it’s a reason not to watch Ted Lasso, but it is super annoying that in 2021 the standards and expectations are still so vastly different for mothers and fathers. The patriarchy harms us all.
Anyway, the fact is that Ted is, for lack of more interesting words, a really good guy. He’s like the antithesis of toxic masculinity and it’s a god damn breath of fresh and funny air. He comes across as almost naive, but in truth he’s extremely aware of what other people think about him. It’s just that he’s more focused on making things better for everyone to care about it too much. When he doesn’t understand something, he admits it freely and with a smile. He turns to Nathan (Nick Mohammed), the extremely insecure and under-appreciated kitman, for coaching advice and makes sure he gets all the credit when his ideas pan out. He lets his excitement show with the unselfconscious air of a seven year old. When one of the players makes an impressive shot Ted shouts, “Holy smokes! Did you see that? That fella looked like a kitty cat when he gets spooked by a cucumber.” Ted’s unsinkable optimism is balanced by Coach Beard’s more grounded outlook. He’s the ballast to Ted’s buoyancy, the reality check to his inspiring speeches. He’s one who actually learns the rules of the game, for example. Ted’s greatest mission in life is to bring teams together and help pretty much everyone he meets realize their full potential. He does in some pretty unconventional ways, including giving the team captain a copy of A Wrinkle in Time, performing a ceremony to break a curse, making daily batches of cookies, organizing birthday parties, “parent trapping” players, and talking through a lot of feelings. At one point he tells a player, “You beating yourself up is like Woody Allen playing the clarinet. I don’t want to hear it.”
The Richmond team, like any team in a good redemption story, is a disjointed mess. The star player, Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), is an ego-maniacal prick who refuses to pass the ball and encourages other players to bully Nathan. Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), the aging team captain, has no patience for, well, pretty much anything and does more growling and yelling fuck than actual speaking. (Obviously, I love him deeply.) None of them have any confidence in their ability to win or Ted Lasso’s ability to coach, but, of course, all of that will soon change. One of the great things that the show does is use the characters’ insecurities, flaws, and embarrassing pasts to make them stronger, more interesting, and compassionate characters. Seriously, even the three guys who critique every game from barstools in the local pub feel like they have backstories. For a half hour comedy about grown men getting paid to play a game, this show has a lot of layers and depth.
But you want to know who the real star of the show is for me? Keeley (Juno Temple), Jamie Tartt’s wickedly smart, funny, and self aware girlfriend who eventually becomes indispensable to Ted, Rebecca, and the entire team. Early on she tells Ted, “So when I was eighteen, I dated a footballer that was twenty-three. Now I’m close to thirty and I’m still dating a twenty-three-year-old footballer. I’m Leonardo DiCaprio!” Like Ted, she is always hysterically honest. When Ted asks her what motivates Jamie, she thinks briefly before responding with a shrug, “blow jobs.” But where many shows would make the star football player’s girlfriend a funny footnote or the fluffy butt of many jokes, Keeley, like Ted, is built of pure kindness and emotional intelligence, and she helps other characters grow and open themselves up to happiness. When Rebecca is nervous on a red carpet, for example, Keeley walks out among the photographers and shouts compliments at her in a deep voice that sounds not unlike a muppet. May there be much more of Rebecca and Keeley together next season because they are the perfect comedy duo.
Fuck! This show is so damn funny and enjoyable! It’s kind and charming and (dare I say it) kinda sorta inspirational, but is balanced with benign snark that stops it from ever tipping over into maudlin. Really, it has so much heart and appeal that it should come with a warning label, but, like, in a good way. “Content Warning: You may experience feelings of happiness, hope, and possibly optimism while watching this series. We realize that these feelings may be unfamiliar to many people. But please be assured they are considered normal (and even healthy) human emotions.” Now I’m going to try to enact some of Coach Lasso’s advice to be like a goldfish, so I can forget the whole damn show and watch it again for the first time.